Rob Hardy on books


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Visiting the City, Visiting the Movie



Rob Hardy


If you have never seen Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), stop reading this book review and find it and see it. You should do this first because it is just a truly entertaining and enigmatic movie, brilliantly set out and devastating in its denouement. You should do this second because even if Vertigo is not the master's most popular film, most critics agree that it is the one with the most depth and richness for interpretation. You might want to do this third because of all the critical writing that has been done about the characters, and, for instance, the way Hitchcock tried to mold his actresses with the same forced control shown by Jimmy Stewart over Kim Novak in the movie. You will want to do this fourth if you want to enjoy critical appreciation on another theme, the place of San Francisco in Vertigo and the place of Vertigo in San Francisco, laid out in (now we get to the review) The San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo: Place, Pilgrimage, and Commemoration (The Scarecrow Press), edited by Douglas A. Cunningham, with contributions by sixteen critics, artists, San Franciscans, and Hitchcock fans. You need to do this fifth because in this review, I may well give away plot points, and believe me, Vertigo is a movie that you want to see the first time with as little preview as possible. 




Now, with that out of the way, I will tell you that I am newly eager to see Vertigo again, armed with the knowledge in this entertaining and instructive book. I'm also eager to see San Francisco again! Vertigo is not, of course, a travelogue (though one chapter here refers to it as a psychological thriller traumalogue), and Cunningham's book is not simply an examination of the many locales in the film (some important on their own, like the Golden Gate Bridge, while others, like the main character's apartment, important only because of association with the movie). You won't be able to take this book in hand as a guide to get to the thirteen sites evaluated here, although in the last chapter, written by Cunningham himself, he proposes a Vertigo Heritage Trail, including such details as who should finance the trail and how the explanatory markers at each site ought to be of bronze rather than more modern alloys. Plenty of people are already making the trail regularly, and the chapters of the book help explain why this has happened to Vertigo more than to any other film. 




Everyone knows that Hitchcock had a way of setting important scenes, especially climaxes, in monuments and landmarks, like Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty. He selected those settings for his films, but Vertigo was different. Under his guidance, the movie's script was written to fit the locations, rather than vice versa. Understanding the locales helps enormously in understanding the movie. For instance, two key settings are missions. The main character Scottie is assigned to follow the possibly possessed wife, Madeleine, of a shipping magnate. He trails her to Mission Dolores in San Francisco itself, where she stops at the grave of Carlotta Valdez by whom she is obsessed. Carlotta, according to the gravestone, lived from 1831 to 1857, and was part of the Hispanic past of San Francisco about which, in the mid-twentieth century, there was a cultural amnesia. "Spanish, you know," dismissively explains the shipping tycoon who has put Scottie on the case. The cultural misunderstandings contribute to the film's tragic events, with two culminations at another mission, Mission San Juan Batista which is a hundred miles away. Carlotta might have been among those born and raised at this mission, further deepening the film's questions about colonialism, empire, exploitation, and a tragic past. 




Scottie is afflicted with a fear of heights from the trauma of seeing the fall of a fellow officer trying to rescue him as he clings to a rooftop (a mission-style roof, no less, on the tiles of which he has misstepped). The film shows his descent, another fall, as he crosses from his own ethnic arena into Mission Dolores and further south to San Juan Batista. The latter mission has a tower, the ascent of which might reverse his fall and provide understanding. Significantly, though the mission still exists, it used to have a tower, but the tower had fallen to dry rot by the time Hitchcock made his movie. The tower was added in the studio, as was the famous "Vertigo Shot" of getting closer while simultaneously pulling away. Like Scottie remaking the lost Madeleine after he runs into Judy, Hitchcock needed to remake his own vision of the past.  




Among the most interesting essays here is an article from 1982 which details how a couple of Vertigo freaks got to see the movie at that time. It was a cloak-and-dagger affair. Although the film was released in 1958, it was withdrawn from circulation (along with Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, and The Trouble With Harry) as Hitchcock's estate awaited a deal for theatrical re-release and transfer to videotape. The authors had to contact someone who owned a 35-mm print in order to see the movie, and ownership of such prints was illegal. An illegal print was, however, the only way they were going to get to see the movie, and they did get a secret showing. Afterward, they took their notes about locales, and went on one of the first documented hunts for the settings of the film. They weren't the first to try to see the settings. In fact, when they went to the Podesta Baldocchi flower shop, where Madeleine buys a nosegay that is integral to the film, the shop owner was familiar with such pilgrims who wanted to see the shop and the rear door Madeleine uses between it and the alleyway. Hitchcock did use the real shop, but not the alleyway. "That whole sequence was shot in the studio," the shop's owner tells them. "People come in looking for the rear door, the one that Kim Novak seems to come through, but it's not here, it's in Hollywood." The theme of "It's not here" is one that is constant in the movie, and is relived by those seeking its locales. (Even the flower shop is "It's not here" these days, although the building remains.) There are plenty of other changes; the former Empire Hotel (the theme of empire again) where Judy lives is still open and you can book Judy's room, but it is now the Vertigo Hotel. A chapter here is written by a man who for the 1995 San Francisco International Film Festival created a tour of Vertigo sites, like Mission Dolores, the museum where Madeleine goes to stare at the picture of Carlotta, Scottie's apartment, Fort Point with its view under the Golden Gate Bridge, and more. Nowadays he takes his laptop on the tours with him to show clips from the film at each stop. As tour guide, he frequently gets evidence that his flock is not composed of just tourists or film fans, but those seeking something deeper. The travelers revisit the emotions of Scottie and Madeline / Judy by revisiting the settings, no matter how changed they are. "This is why a Vertigo tour is more like a religious pilgrimage," the guide explains, "and an accompanying backstory about the sufferings of a saint with whom the pilgrim identifies, rather than just a recounting of the facts on a tour of historical landmarks." 




The pilgrims come full circle. Cunningham himself has been to all the locations, of course, and reflects on the passion that makes him and others hunt them out: "Was I not, after all, like Scottie, hoping to reify an apparition, chasing a precious, enigmatic memory rooted in a fiction, the truth of which I desperately hoped I, in my own time and space, could somehow make real?" The attempt is fraught with disappointment; Scottie cannot make things real in time enough to prevent tragedy, and some of the sites which pilgrims might try to attain are changed beyond recognition (and some are complete illusion, as was discovered by the first pilgrims who tried to find the Argosy Bookshop, where Scottie goes to research Carlotta's history). But the search is inspiring for those who want to visit the inside workings of Vertigo. The inspiration suffuses all the chapters of this fine study, a worthy contribution to the numerous books devoted to increasing our understanding of a true masterpiece. 




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